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Cabeza de Vaca (1991)

A handful of survivors from a disastrous 1528 Spanish expedition to Florida journey across the coast until they reach Mexico.
2 wins & 1 nomination. See more awards »
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Cast overview, first billed only:
Cascabel / Araino
Carlos Castañón ...
Gerardo Villarreal ...
Roberto Cobo ...
Lozoya (as Roberto 'Calambres' Cobo)
José Flores ...
Eli 'Chupadera' Machuca ...
Farnesio de Bernal ...
Fray Suárez
Josefina Echánove ...
Anciana Avavar
Max Kerlow ...
Man in Armor
Óscar Yoldi ...
Ramón Barragán ...
Pánfilo de Narváez
Julio Solórzano Foppa ...
Javier Escobar Villarreal ...
Young Iguase Indian


An international award winning saga of old Mexico. In 1528, a Spanish expedition founders off the coast of Florida with 600 lives lost. One survivor, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, roams across the American continent searching for his Spanish comrades. Instead, he discovers the Iguase, an ancient Indian tribe. Over the next eight years, Cabeza de Vaca learns their mystical and mysterious culture, becoming a healer and a leader. But soon this New World collides with the Old World as Spanish conquistadors seek to enslave the Indians, and Cabeza de Vaca must confront his own people and his past. Written by Concorde - New Horizons (with permission).

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for violence and language | See all certifications »

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Release Date:

17 April 1992 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Die Abenteuer des Cabeza de Vaca  »

Filming Locations:


Box Office


$789,127 (USA)

Company Credits

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Did You Know?


The huge figure of a naked man wielding a club which is created by the Indian sorcerer is an accurate representation of the ancient Celtic chalk carving known as the Cerne Abbas Giant, which is 60 metres in height and is located on a hillside overlooking the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England. See more »


Referenced in The Dangerous (1995) See more »

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User Reviews

Powerful meditation about Mexico's birth
26 May 2008 | by (Sacramento, California) – See all my reviews

This is a really interesting 1991 Mexican drama concerning the eight-year long journey (1528 - 1536) of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked in Florida and enslaved by Indians, but who found a career as an itinerant Indian shaman, and eventually, after an endless journey through swamp and desert, ultimately found his way back to Spanish civilization. Cabeza de Vaca's few traveling companions, most notably the Moor Estebanico, helped fuel rumors of the Seven Cities of Cíbola, which led directly to the 1540 Coronado expedition and the first Spanish encounters with the Pueblo Indians of the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca's story is one the greatest personal survival tales in world history, and it made him one of the very, very few people who could fully appreciate the tragedy of Spain's conquest of the peoples of the Americas. The movie is in Spanish with English subtitles, but there is actually little Spanish at all, since Cabeza de Vaca is often alone or isolated, with no one to speak to. He is just as lost as the audience, in a world of Indian dialects.

The director Nicolás Echevarría greatly simplified, even over-simplified, Cabeza de Vaca's journey. The movie suggests the shipwreck was in Florida, but that was actually the journey's first bloody stopping point. The final shipwreck occurred somewhere west of the Mississippi Delta, and Cabeza de Vaca's enslavement likely occurred somewhere near Galveston, Texas. Why leave that part out? Well, it's complicated, and ultimately for director Nicolás Echevarría may have been unimportant. Echevarría had something else in mind. The important part was that Cabeza de Vaca was thrown into a hallucinatory world of abasement and privation. Cabeza de Vaca carried a Christian cross, and his initial captors decided he should be sent to a shaman who also wore a cross, and be put to work tending the needs of a spoiled armless gnome. What a horrible existence! The hallucinatory quality is reminiscent of the magical realism pioneered by author Gabriel García Márquez and subsequently used by directors like Mel Gibson in "Apocalypto". Cabeza de Vaca's real existence may have been as a turtle-egg collector on the Texas beach, but instead the movie shows him apprenticing the shaman craft with his captors. Cabeza de Vaca's vision-laden emergence as a successful healer is the movie's best moment.

The transition from swamp to desert is very abrupt, indicating that Echevarría wasn't much bothered by notions of continuity. Indeed, he had only two Mexican filming locations: the desert (in Coahuila) and the swamp (in Nayarit). As far as I could tell, the Indians were less like the real Indians of the northern Gulf of Mexico coast, and more like the Indians of Mexico. Then I remembered my history of Mexico ("Mexico" by Michael D. Coe, third edition, p. 146):

"Into this uneasy political situation stepped the last barbaric tribe to arrive in the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs, the 'people whose face nobody knows'. They said that they came from a place called 'Aztlan' in the west of Mexico, believed by some authorities to be the state of Nayarit, and had wandered about guided by the image of their tribal god, Huitzilopochtli ('Hummingbird-on-the left'), who was borne on the shoulders of four priests. .... We next see the Aztecs following a hand-to-mouth existence in the marshes of the great lake, or 'Lake of the Moon'. On they wandered, loved by none, until they reached some swampy, unoccupied islands, covered by rushes, near the western shore; it was claimed that there the tribal prophecy, to build a city where an eagle was sitting on a cactus, holding a snake in its mouth, was fulfilled.

The director suggests discreetly, by his choice of filming location in the Nayarit swamps, through simplification and also perhaps by conflation of the Texas Indians with Aztecs, and by using a dash of magical realism, that Cabeza de Vaca's real story is about the tragedy of Mexico's conquest by Spain. And Cabeza de Vaca's story is about that, partly at any rate. The film is a meditation about Mexico's tortured birth as a Spanish colony. A powerful film and well-worth watching!

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